Shark fin soup: a dangerous delicacy for human beings and sharks alike

Shark fin soup: a dangerous delicacy for human beings and sharks alike

Hong Kongs shark fin trade is still robust, even devoted recent frightens over unsafe mercury levels. But public attitudes towards consumption are slowly changing

Its early February two days before the Chinese New Year. I am in Hong Kong and there are shark fins everywhere, to suit all types of customer. You can buy them in general food stores, pharmacies and angling villages. You can buy small ones in plastic bags, multipacks or single large ones with festive red prows tied around them.

The cartilage in the fins is usually shredded and used primarily to provide texture and thickening to shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese soup or broth dating back to the Ballad Dynasty( 960 -1 279 ). The dish is considered a luxury item embodying the ideas of hospitality, status and good fortune.

Hammerhead fins wrapped in New Year good luck bows Photograph: Carina Milligan

The origin of the dish can be traced to the Emperor Taizu of the Northern Song, who reigned from 960 -9 76. It is said that he established shark fin soup to showcase his power, wealth and generosity. The dishs popularity increased during the Ming Dynasty( 1368 -1 644) from the consequences of an admiral of the imperial navy, Zheng He, who commanded expeditionary voyages around Asia and East Africa from 1405 -1 433, bringing back fins that fishermen had discarded. From this phase onwards shark fin soup became an established dish and by the time of the Qing Dynasty( 1644 -1 912) was in high demand.

It is not surprising that the popularity of a dish embodying such gentry and elitism declined once the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. However, by the late 1980 s China had undergone far-reaching market-economy reforms which led to a steadily increasing upper and middle class, who were eager to showcase their new-found wealth; shark fin soup once again became a style of doing so. Considering that the price per bowl can range from simply HK$ 5( 45 p) to an incredible HK $2000( 180) depending on the type, style and preparation of the shark fin served, the dish is a viable option for a large number of people.

This increase in demand has led to sharks being targeted exclusively for their fins. Shark finning involves the removal and retention of the shark fins on board, whilst the remainder of the shark( under most circumstances the animal is still alive) is then discarded back into the ocean.

The anglers carrying out this practice are often seduced by short-term gain. The price paid for the fins is higher than for their normal catch, yet they are paid relatively little when compared to the money constructed higher up the chain by the fin traders. In west Africa, shark fishermen often rapidly become trapped in a cycle of debt[ pdf] with South East Asian fin traders. Local shark populations are speedily depleted, entailing the fishermen must travel further distances in search of sharks; in order to be allowed to do so they require larger ships and more fuel. The fund for this is loaned to them by the fin traders, who then subtract a proportion of this from any catches. With decreasing shark numbers the fishermen find it increasingly harder to break even.

I first became aware of this practice in 2003, during my undergraduate degree, when writing a paper on the conservation status of the blue shark ( Prionace glauca ), a highly migratory pelagic species. Back then they were considered to be the most heavily fished shark in the world, with an estimated annual fisheries mortality of between 10 and 20 million people. Ten years later, in 2013, I had the chance to dive with blue sharks in the waters above the Azores Bank to the south west of Faial Island. It was easily one of the most memorable dives I have ever done: the sharks were inquisitive, sleek and stunning, complete with their pilot fish companions accompanying them through their open ocean migration.

Following the diving, one of the operators told us that some of the sharks we had dived with today would probably end up on the deck of a fishing barge next week. Sadly, a study by Queiroz and colleagues in December 2015 suggests that this could well have been the case. The examine used satellite tracking data from six shark species across the North Atlantic together with simultaneous GPS tracking of the entire Spanish and Portuguese longline vessel fishing fleet. Data analysis revealed an 80% overlap of fished areas with shark hotspots, this is particularly bad news for the blue shark which comprises around 70% of the total pelagic shark catches.

A store room containing dried and bagged fins. Photo: Lauren Smith

With molecular genetics, the identification of species is possible even after the fins have been removed, employing diagnostic DNA sequence exams with species-specific PCR primers. These techniques are the most reliable way to decide which species are the most heavily traded. This is particularly important as traders tend to classify fins employing Chinese name categories on the basis of market value. This entails the relationship between the market category and species becomes unclear.

Once a species breakdown becomes available, however, it is clear that fin trading constitutes a threat to a wide range of species. For instance, the figures from a 2006 study show that in Hong Kong for the period examined, the auctioned fin weight was dominated by the blue shark, which made up over 17% of the overall market.Other taxa identified were the mako( Isurus spp .), thresher( Alopias spp .), tiger ( Galeocerdo cuvier ), silky ( Carcharhinus falciformes ), dusky( C. obscuris ), bull( C. leucas ), oceanic white-tip( C. longimanus ), sandbar( C. plumbeus) and hammerhead( Sphyrna spp .). Two of these hammerhead species( scalloped and great) are classified as endangered.

On the positive side, in recent years there has been an increasing public awareness of the shark fin trade and the need for conservation management of elasmobranchs worldwide. The legislative changes in response to this have varied greatly between countries, with some declaring all shark fishing illegal( Palau) and others stating that although the practice of finning is illegal, importation and trade from other regions is not( Canada ).

In the EU, regulations were strengthened in 2013 with the insistence of sharks being landed with fins naturally attached, a technique widely acknowledged as the most reliable means for implementing a finning prohibit. This was a vast improvement on the original 2003 legislation which outlined a fin landing weight of 5% ratio of the total sharks weight. However, this presented a loophole allowing more fins to be landed per whole animal, given the fact that the primary fin set actually weighs around 2% of the total body weight.

Caudal( tail) fins. Photo: Lauren Smith

Despite the efforts of campaign groups, conservation scientists and government bodies, the real power to aim the fin trade is firmly rooted in the consumer. Without a doubt in Hong Kong there is still ample opportunity to buy shark fins, but does this mean the product is still in high demand? My investigations exposed a mixed response. Some people told me they had stopped feeing shark fin soup wholly, others told me they still both expected it and enjoyed it at marriage and New Year dinners; other people said they feed it regularly.

For those who had stopped eating it, the reasons given were a combination of the ethical implications as well as recent evidence showing that a percentage of shark fins assessed from five Chinese cities( including Hong Kong ), contained mercury and methylmercury in concentrations high enough to be considered unsafe for human consumption. People who eat it at special occasions assured the dish as an important part of their culture and didnt want that completely lost, and those who consume it regularly simply assured it as their right to do so, despite being aware of the environmental and potential health impacts.

The differences in attitudes of the public is encouraging, although a merchant to present to me that his fin sales had increased by 90% over the Chinese New Year period, suggesting that this dish is still a long way from being relegated to history. Continued public awareness, effective legislation and ongoing scientific research remain essential to the future safeguarding of many shark species.

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